I John 4:7-21
We live in a culture that expects us to be fruitful and productive. We are encouraged to produce, to accomplish, to achieve. We are rewarded for our efforts and applauded for our successes. Our ability to produce or to achieve heightens our worth in the eyes of others, and often in our own eyes as well. We feel good about ourselves when we are able to accomplish important tasks or achieve ‘success’; we despair when we feel that we have accomplished little, or when our accomplishments seem less significant than those of others.
God is interested in our fruitfulness and productivity as well, but in ways that are significantly different from those which society values. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus reveals the source and secret of fruitfulness, drawing on the familiar imagery of the vine and the branches. I’d like to explore that image with you this morning, by looking at three things: (1) the source of fruitfulness; (2) the secret of fruitfulness; and (3) the signs of fruitfulness.
The Source of Fruitfulness
In his illustration, Jesus makes it very clear that we are not the source of our own fruitfulness. Fruitfulness is not the end result of careful planning or dedicated effort on our part. It is not the product of our own cleverness, ingenuity or insight. The fruitfulness that God desires and values is not something we can produce on our own. Just as a branch is helpless to produce fruit apart from the vine that is the source of its fruitfulness, says Jesus, so we are helpless to produce the fruit that God desires apart from God, who is the source of that fruitfulness.
Jesus explains to his disciples that the life-giving connection they have with him is the same life-giving connection he has with the Father. “I can do nothing on my own…,” he tells his disciples (Jn 5:30). All that he says and does proceeds from his intimate connection with God. He is here to do God’s will, not his own. It is to be the same for his followers.
Everything depends on maintaining and strengthening the communion we have with God in Christ. We bear fruit by remaining connected to Jesus, just he bears fruit through his connection with the Father. We are not the originators of the divine grace that comforts and heals and saves; we are simply mediators and instruments of this grace. Jesus and the Father make their home within us, living and acting with us. It is their divine life, the life of the Trinity, which flows through us and produces fruit.
I saw a wonderful expression of this principle many years ago, when I had a job caring for children with disabilities. I remember watching a young boy at dinner time, struggling to cut a piece of meat. He tried and tried, but his hands and arms were simply too weak to be effective. As I watched, one of the staff members came up behind him and reaching around, laid her hands on his and began cutting the meat. Suddenly he was able to do what he could not do on his own, with her strength joined to his, the two strengths becoming one, and it being unclear where his strength left off and hers began. In the same way, God joins God’s strength and life to ours, making a fruitfulness possible that we could never have achieved on our own. God is the source of our strength, and the cause of our fruitfulness.
I have a plant on my desk which I have to rotate once in a while because its leaves insist on turning towards the sun. It is as if they know that the sunlight is their source of life, so they position themselves to receive as much of it as they can. I have watched a newborn lamb bleat and search for its mother, knowing that she is the source of the nourishment that will insure life. So we look to the Lord our God, who is the Source of our true life.
The Secret of Fruitfulness
Any vine-grower will tell you that the secret of the vine’s fruitfulness lies with the skillfulness of the pruner. Left to themselves, grapevines prefer to grow shoots and leaves rather than grapes, and an untended vine will soon stop bearing fruit. Its energies will be dissipated into numerous shoots and leaves, rather than into producing grapes. Grapevines, I’m told, need radical pruning; they need to be cut back as far as possible if they are eventually to be fruitful.
Pruning isn’t a pleasant process, I suspect, either for the plant or for the vine-grower. Likewise for us, the “pruning” God carries out in our lives can hurt and wound us, at least temporarily. But it is just as necessary for our growth and fruitfulness. This pruning process can take place in a variety of ways. Sometimes God acts to take away something on which we have become overly dependent. Sometimes God sends someone or something to try us or test us, helping us grow in new ways. Sometimes the “pruning” results from occasions of suffering, when an unexpected event – an accident, an illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or some other painful event – hurts or wounds us.
Like the wounded vine whose branches have been cut back, we may have to wait for new life to return and to flow in us. For a time we may feel barren and lifeless, but if we are patient, new life and growth will return. Often we will not appreciate the pruning in the moment. Only later will we appreciate how it forced us to grow or change, to develop new skills or ways of thinking, to adjust our expectations or our ways of dealing with others. The ways in which these events shape and form us may be a mystery to us, until at some later point, we see how they have benefitted us.
Sometimes the pruning comes about because God inspires us to seek it. We yearn to grow or change, to be rid of cumbersome, fruitless branches that we realize are getting in the way of true life. We may seek to be freed from our disordered attachments; liberated from our patterns of addiction; healed of our selfishness, pride or greed. We realize that we cannot accomplish these things on our own, and we look to God to purify and restore us.
The process of pruning is painful, but necessary. Without it, our lives become dissipated and scattered. Our energies flow in a thousand directions as we pursue countless distractions. Pruning helps bring focus and intention to our lives, helping us re-direct our energies towards things that matter. If we are wise, we will recognize the hand of the Vine-grower at work and cooperate with the process, as painful as it might be in the moment to “let go and let God,” as an A.A. slogan puts it.
The Signs of Fruitfulness
The Word became flesh in order to lead us into communion with God. But this close connection with the life of the Trinity is not an end in itself. It is meant to produce fruit. The prophets criticized the people of Israel because they lost sight of the reason for their calling. They forgot that the vine the Lord had planted and tended did not exist for itself, but in order to provide fruit. So too, God’s invitation for us to “abide” in God as God abides in us is not an invitation to settle down and get comfortable. It is a call to mission, a summons to fruitfulness. We are meant to share the fruits of the divine life with others. So what are the signs of fruitfulness? What sort of fruit are we to produce?
Our readings today suggest two fruits in particular: love and obedience. Because God’s nature is love, it is natural to expect that our union with God will make us more loving towards others. “God is love,” the author of First John reminds us, “and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them” (I Jn 4:16). Again, he tells us, “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God; whoever does not love does not know God” (I Jn 4:7).
Our union with God produces the fruit of love. “We love because he first loved us” (I Jn 4:19). As we experience ourselves as beloved children of God, unconditionally and forever loved by God, we learn to love others with the same love that has been so freely given to us. As we are forgiven, so we learn to forgive others. As we are accepted, so we learn to accept others. Love is God’s very nature, and therefore it is the chief characteristic of the shared life we have in God. Love is the sign of the community which Jesus called into being, the Church. It is the fruit which God values above all others. Really, it’s all about love.
A second sign of a fruitful life in God is obedience. “If you keep my commandments,” Jesus tells his disciples, “you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (Jn 15:10). This obedience is not the obedience rendered to a military commander; rather, it is the fruit of a loving relationship. It arises from the desire to please the one whom we love, rather than from the fear of punishment. “There is no fear in love,” First John reminds us, “but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment” (I Jn 4:18).
Jesus indwells us, and calls us his friends. He reveals himself to us, so that we may together be one heart, one mind, one spirit, with nothing between us or separating us. We are not servants, but friends, dear ones who are deeply loved, and the obedience we offer rises from the desire Jesus inspires in us to live in intimate union with him. Sometimes it seems that we are so busy being God’s servants and “working for Jesus” that we forget that he wants us to be his friends, to live in union with him and to receive his love. We must remember that our friendship and intimate union with him is the source of our fruitfulness. He has chosen us for this purpose.
Here, then, is how our fruitfulness differs from the fruitfulness which the world expects and encourages. We are mediators of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s power to save and heal. As branches we receive the life of the vine and pass it along to others. The fruitfulness is not ours, but God’s. God is its source; God alone. In the words of Jean Vanier, “The glory of human beings is not first and foremost to do or produce things or to build beautiful monuments or churches, to write wonderful books or to create new technology. All these will pass. The glory of human beings is to communicate life, pouring the oils of compassion on suffering people. It is with Jesus and in him to transform others, to help them move from inner death, sadness and aggression to inner peace, joy and fullness of life.” (1)
This is the measure of our fruitfulness, the fruitfulness which originates with God and flows through us to others. This is the fruitfulness that God values.
- Vanier, Jean; Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John; (New York: Paulist Press, 2004); p. 271.
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